No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Friday, January 25, 2002

Interview: Chris Amies, BSFA, January 2002

This interview took place in January 2002, at the monthly British Science Fiction Association night in London. This interview previously appeared in Vector (issue #224, July / August 2002), the critical journal of the British Science Fiction Association.

TB: Chris Amies’ first novel, Dead Ground, has just been published by Big Engine. Chris, can you tell us about the novel?
CA: It's the story of an archaeological expedition in the 1930s that sets off to a remote chain of islands in the southern Pacific to investigate a mysterious structure known colloquially as the Shark Temple. It's a structure that's sacred to the island gods. Of course, when they arrive the local people tell them not to dig the temple up. "Very bad things will happen if you do." Being arrogant Westerners, the expedition carry on and dig it up, and of course terrible things do happen.
There's quite a bit of a Lovecraft influence in it. I didn't start off writing Lovecraftian stuff originally: I started off writing science fiction. I've always been a Lovecraft fan. I like his purple prose and his names that shouldn't be pronounced by human mouths.
TB: A lot of science fiction writers seem to have this dark, secret fondness for Lovecraft.
CA: Actually, Lovecraft did write science fiction. Although everything he wrote was actually more or less Cthulhu mythos, some things like At the Mountains of Madness are essentially science fiction. What you have there is the investigation of a lost civilisation in the depths of Antarctica. Some Lovecraftiana is science fiction. I think it appeals to many science fiction authors and readers.
TB: So you get to write about strange monsters and unhealthy happenings in a Thirties South Pacific. Are the Condal Islands real?
CA: No. They're based partly on the Marquesas Islands, and partly on the Cook Islands. They're at the tail end of the British Empire: they don't actually exist. That's all to the good, because otherwise you have to go and research a real place! If you invent the place, you can play games with it: you can play tunes on the local geography, so to speak. I drew a map - which tells you it must be a fantasy novel!
TB: That’s almost exactly the opposite of what Liz Williams said in a previous interview, about writing so that she can get to visit real places.
CA: I was reading an article in the Times today by somebody who's recently won an award for a novel set in China. He said he'd never actually been to China, and it would have detracted from the novel if he had been there. He'd have only been able to write about what he saw when he was over there; whereas so many people who've been to China have written at great length about it, and they can provide very convincing background information for him to use.
TB: Dead Ground, like some of your short stories, foregrounds the idea of outsiders visiting a place. That's a very sfnal theme, the alien incomer.
CA: That's something I've dealt with a lot, that theme of the outsider coming into a place, and the people they meet knowing more about what's going on. It's a classic sf theme from the golden age of sf.
TB: You could have written Dead Ground as an sf novel.
CA: It could easily be sf. That thing that's globbering in the darkness, is it a demon or is it an alien? If it's a demon it's fantasy: if it's an alien it's SF. Sometimes the boundaries are a bit difficult to mark.
TB: One archetype who appears in several guises throughout your work is the English eccentric. In Dead Ground it's spinster-archaeologist Cosima Garton.
CA: I suppose she is an English eccentric, but at the same time she's a woman in a profession which was male-dominated at the time.She gets away with a lot more eccentricity, a lot more going off and doing her own thing. I think that's another part of the outsider. People who are outsiders do tend to make their own rules, so to the rest of the world they do come across as eccentric, or very strange.
TB: Why did you start writing?
CA: I first started writing when I was at school. I think I started writing because I liked reading and I wasn't reading the sorts of things I wanted to read. That may have been a function of being at boarding school. There were a limited number of books available: if it wasn't in the school library, there wasn't much you could do about it. This was just before the upsurge of fantasy. The stuff I was reading was definitely sf, whenever I could get my hands on it. Like many people, I went round looking for the yellow spines of Gollancz books in the library. I was reading Silverberg and Zelazny and Cordwainer Smith and stuff like that. My influences weren’t fantasy, because there wasn't an awful lot of it about.
TB: You carried on writing when you left school?
CA: I was just writing for my own amusement for many years, until 1989 when I went on an Arvon Foundation course up in Yorkshire, taught by Iain Banks and Lisa Tuttle. That was a science fiction course. Until that point I hadn't actually realised that what I was writing was science fiction. That may sound like an ingenuous thing to say, considering that one of the novels I'd actually written at that point had been a parallel worlds story involving reincarnation in a just-post-revolutionary England! But I looked through the prospectus, and the course that was closest to what I wanted to write was the science fiction course.. The class exercise was 'write a story in which one thing is different from our own world'. An idea which I'd been thinking through for a while was, what if the terminal velocity of falling objects - falling humans - was much less? You'd develop flight much earlier, because if you had a primitive flying machine and you fell out of it, you’d bounceIn our world you. might splash, but you wouldn't bounce. I wrote the story based on a variable terminal velocity. It was called 'Terminal Velocity', and it sold to a magazine called The Gate. It was published in about 1990.
TB: What was it that made you take your writing seriously enough to go on a course? There are a lot of people who write, but who never take that step.
CA: I was writing: I was churning out the stories and the novels. But I was floundering, because I didn't know exactly what I wanted to write. I thought going on the course would help with that. I needed direction and focus.
TB: You published quite a few stories in various small press magazines. Then you became involved with the Midnight Rose anthologies. How did that happen?
CA: Through the Milford writers' workshop, which happens every year. One year - I think it was 1989 or 1990 - Alex Stewart and Mary Gentle were involved in setting up Midnight Rose there. They were talking about this series of shared world anthologies that they wanted to put out. There were three basic subjects. I think the first one had already appeared: that was Temps, in which - rather like the Wild Cards series in the States - the premise is that superheroes are real. Temps, being British, was slightly more low-key than the American version: no strange costumes, no whizzing around in the sky. The eponymous temps are on a government register and are sent off to do jobs involving their superpowers. The next anthology was The Weerde: the Weerde were shapeshifters, a parallel race who were the originals of werewolves, vampires and things like that. The third anthology was Villains, which was a fantasy spoof: heroic fantasy, written from the viewpoint of the villains. I came up with a couple of stories for them: one for The Weerde, which is called 'Rain', is set in Spain in the 1960s, and one for EuroTemps, which is called 'A Virus in the System'. That story got me slightly twitted in some quarters for using a female protagonist. It was set in Greece - all the stories in that anthology had to be set abroad, in a European country.
TB: 'Rain' got an Honourable Mention' in the Year's Best Fantasy And Horror.
CA: It did, didn't it?
TB: Whatever happened to Midnight Rose, anyway?
CA: I think it was a project that ran its course. They said they were going to produce a certain number of anthologies and that's what they did: then the people responsible for it went and did something else. I think there is a place for anthologies like that, because they are a way of getting stories published.
TB: Your short fiction is wide-ranging. I'd class some of it as dark fantasy, some as horror … There's very little straightforward science fiction: there's very little straightforward anything, really.
CA: A lot of it is dark fantasy, yes. If you look at something like 'By the Real Sea' - although that involves some kind of nanomachinery, people getting things from stones that they suck which allow them to become telepathic with the people around them. You could actually see this as a science fiction premise, except that it isn't explained scientifically, and the whole tone of the story is more fantastical. 'In Death's Dream Kingdom' is a straight-down-the-line zombie story, so you can't say that's science fiction. The short stories cover quite a wide range, it's true, but I do tend towards dark fantasy.
TB: You write characters very much in places, even when they're outsiders. They’re quite rooted in the culture they come from, and also in the country they're living in.
CA: Going back to Dead Ground for a second, you have the native population and you have the outsiders - the archaeological expedition - who come in. Those people who are there already, the native population, have a very strong sense of where they're from. A novel I was working on for a couple of years - which doesn't yet have a proper ending, but I might pick this one up and finish it - was actually set around the area of London where I live. I had some characters who were very, very rooted in that area. I've lived in that part of London for twenty years, I’m a member of the local history society, and I'm generating mythology from what I know about the area. If you look at the stories, 'Rain' in The Weerde did have an outsider - an English ex-soldier who goes to live in south-western Spain, and then really merges into the landscape there. Literally. Being a shapeshifter, he does actually change to make himself look more like the locals.
TB: He starts off as a tall, blond Englishman. By the time the story takes place, he's short and square and dark. The only way he betrays his Englishness is by a slight accent.
CA: He really has merged in. It's defensive coloration, and it's why he's such a good character to come up against the invader from outside. The invaders are the prehumans, the Neanderthals. They're very badly treated in this story: they were not grunting savages, they did have language and culture, they were just the ones who lost to Homo Sapiens.
TB: Dead Ground is being published by Big Engine. You’ve known Ben Jeapes for a while, I believe?
CA: I workshopped Dead Ground through 3sf, a writers’ workshop which Ben and I have both been in for a few years, and Ben asked me if I would be prepared to submit it to Big Engine for publication.
TB: What do you think about what Big Engine's doing?
CA: I think it's a great effort and one that's been very successful. Big Engine are publishing new titles as well as reprints: they started with Dave Langford's The Leaky Establishment, which had been out of print for many years, and which is a great read. Ben’s continued the series of Interzone anthologies: early ones had been published in the Eighties and Nineties, and the next one is The Ant-Men of Tibet. Big Engine is a twenty-first century publisher, really, using new technologies such as print-on-demand.
TB: Tell us about your involvement with the Milford writers’ workshop.
CA: I went to Milford many times: I was secretary of Milford for a few years. More recently I've been going to Milford about once every two years, so my finger hasn't been on that pulse quite so much. The whole thing of a Milford is to bring a group of writers together for a week to workshop each other's work. You do get very good discussions, very intense at times. It used to take place by the sea so that people could go down and throw stones at the sea after they'd had their stories ripped to pieces. The whole thing is based on another workshop, also called Milford, that started in the United States. It was established in Britain by James Blish, who lived over here for a while. There's nothing else quite like Milford in Britain.
TB: What's in the pipeline?
CA: At the moment I'm working on a sequel to Dead Ground. The working title is Sea of Stones. Unlike Dead Ground, which is set in the 1930s, this is set in the present day - perhaps slightly in the future. It's the return to Koiha , seventy years on; and, as you might imagine, weird stuff starts to happen. Once again the boundary between science fiction and fantasy is a bit blurred in this - not to mention horror! I'm not sure if it's going to be gorier than Dead Ground. It brings to mind Scream 2, where the characters outline the requirements for a sequel: 'Requirement One: the body count must always be higher than the previous film'. I don't know if this is necessarily true in Sea of Stone.
TB: I think it depends which market you're aiming for. Which market are you aiming for?
CA: It's not out-and-out horror. A horror novel should inspire terror, not disgust.
TB: What else? Any more short fiction? Other novels, novellas?
CA: I may try to resurrect the novel I was working on previously, called Walking on the Bones - the one set in Hammersmith.
TB: 'In Death's Dream Kingdom', the zombie story, is set in Hammersmith, and it’s very much rooted in place: there's a real sense of familiarity, even if the reader has never been to Hammersmith. I can see the appeal of writing in a setting you don't have to research. What advice would you give to a younger writer? Write what you know? Or make it all up?
CA: Hard to say, isn't it? I would say 'write what you know, but mess around with it a bit: find a new angle on it’. Iain Sinclair does it by drawing a new map of London and superimposing it on the existing one. Moorcock does it by ripping up the real structure and putting in one that might have been.
TB: And what about the characters?
CA: The character comes first of all, I think. Character in place. Characters will be influenced by the setting they're in. I think it's important to have very strongly defined characters, but quite often you can't tell how they're going to be defined until you start writing them.
TB: You’ve written some humorous short stories, though they’re not the sort of stories which only exist as a vehicle for humour.
CA: 'Other Stories', about the recluse who finds the Little Folk at the bottom of his garden making shrines with cat skulls in them - “ah, that's what happened to you, Tashlan”, he thinks sadly- was intended as a funny story. The Hammersmith novel, Walking on the Bones, will have a lot more humour in it than there is in some of the other stuff I've written. I don't know whether I was actually trying to do a Robert Rankin: Robert Rankin does Robert Rankin. I found that it was quite good to try to write funny stuff over a few years.
TB: What do you think of the current state of humorous fantasy?
CA: I don't really read any. Oh, Pratchett's good. Pratchett writes proper novels that happen to be funny. He proves that you can have humour and tell a proper story at the same time. Some films, and some supposedly humorous books, only parody one thing. The film Robin Hood: Men in Tights was only a parody on Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves: if you hadn't seen that, it didn't make sense. A successful parody needs to be part of the genre it's sending up. In the case of Terry Pratchett, he is writing proper magical fantasy novels: he just happens to be sending the genre up at the same time. And they are postmodern: they are just pendant off the genre as a whole.
[Audience]: What are the differences between writing a totally familiar setting and one that's totally fictional?
CA: The familiar can actually be a trap as well, because if you're too familiar with something you work really hard on getting it completely right. Sometimes you have to allow yourself a certain amount of leeway. You don't have to describe it in street-by-street detail. You can be fairly vague about it, so that your writing just assumes that background knowledge. [K]'s background came from Gavin Young's book Slow Boats Home and Martha Grimwood's book Islands, and from one or two other things. It's not entirely invented, because although the islands don't exist they can't be too radically different from the Marquesas or Fiji or Tonga. What I do find myself doing, as well as defining the place, is defining the people. I was very definite about where these people came from and what their origin is. I found myself having to work out what the language of these people would be as well.
[Audience]: Did that make you more fascinated with it?
CA: I must have gone fairly deeply into it, but I don't remember getting totally side-tracked. Apart from Dead Ground there's one other story set in those islands, called 'Radio Afterlife', and it's off with a magazine at the moment. It would be possible for an invented world to take over, but not completely. By the time I'd finished writing the book, I think I knew the islands fairly well.